In 1944, at the sharp tail end of World War II, a small group gathered in a room above a drug store in Portsmouth to take part in a séance. They’d paid a little over 12 shillings (around £17) for the pleasure. As they took their seats, a small 46-year-old Scottish woman came into view: Helen Duncan.
This is who they were here to see: the famous “materialization medium,” a woman who could conjure not only the spirits of the dead, but their physical manifestations, formed from the gleaming white ectoplasm that spewed from her mouth and nostrils in the glow of a dim red light.
But two members of the audience had no interest in bearing witness to Duncan’s so-called gifts. On that January day in 1944, naval officers had infiltrated the séance to take her into custody. A warrant had been issued for her arrest, and Duncan was initially charged under section four of the Vagrancy Act, and with conspiring to defraud the public.
But the supposed deception of the public by a Scottish medium was not the main reason for this elaborate sting operation. Helen Duncan was well known to the authorities on suspicion of eavesdropping on state secrets. It was rumored that she told Brigadier Roy C. Firebrace, a high-ranking British Army officer, about the sinking of the Royal Naval battlecruiser HMS Hood in 1941 before he’d even received the confirmation call.
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At another séance in Portsmouth (the home of the Royal Navy at the time) three years earlier, the spirit of a sailor supposedly appeared and told Duncan and the audience that his vessel, the HMS Barham, had been sunk. And he was right: The Queen Elizabeth-class battleship had been destroyed by a German U-Boat, killing around 800 men on board.
The government had kept news of the sinking under wraps to protect civilian morale. It was not made public for three months—so how did Duncan know? Maybe she really was a gifted spiritualist, or she’d heard the information from one of the deceased's relatives, who had already quietly received letters of the tragedy. Either way, it put the British Admiralty on high alert. In the paranoia-addled days of World War Two, they couldn’t afford a security risk, even if it came in the form of regurgitated ectoplasm. Duncan had to be arrested.
Similar cases were normally tried under the Vagrancy Act (often used to prosecute fortune tellers and spiritualists attempting to defraud the public) and would not be seen before a Crown Court. With the authorities seeking a harsher and more definitive sentence, Duncan was tried under the antiquated Witchcraft Act of 1735.
Responding to a colleague’s concern about the use of a 200-year-old law in a modern court, the Director of Public Prosecutions E. H. Tindall Atkinson wrote, “I am under the impression that counsel thought that the case might be more easily proved in the shape of conspiracy to contravene this somewhat ancient act than by seeking to substantiate a Common Law fraudulent conspiracy.” The courts wanted to make an example out of her with a prison sentence, and this was the easiest way. Had the case not come up, there’s a chance the ancient law would never have resurfaced.
Duncan's Old Bailey trial was a scandal, with front page splashes in national newspapers. Spiritualists across the UK wrote to Labour MP Eleanor Rathbone calling out for her release. “Surely this is a travesty of justice incompatible with that freedom for which we are supposedly fighting,” one wrote.
The Daily Mail ran an article under the headline “Women Tell of Spirit Kisses,” recounting the testimony of Duncan's supporters. Around 30 people came to her defense; some said they’d watched her materialize spirits which spoke Spanish, recited nursery rhymes, and kissed members of the audience. One drama critic called Fred Swaffer took the stand to assert the integrity of her ectoplasm, which he claimed poured out of her like “living snow.” Winston Churchill even wrote a personal note to the Home Secretary calling the case “obsolete tomfoolery,” and demanded to know how much money and resource had been wasted on the witchcraft trial.
Duncan was not charged with fraud, but was found guilty of contravening section four the Witchcraft Act and sentenced to nine months in HMS Holloway Prison. She collapsed in the dock, moaning, “Oh I have done nothing, I have never done anything. Is there a God?” She promised to never hold another seance, though she was arrested at one a year after her release. She died in 1956, just before she turned 60.
The “materialization medium” Helen Duncan was a complex case. Like most séances of their time, some claim her sessions were full of outlandish showmanship and almost cinematic visual trickery. They were part of the mood of the wartime era, when divination thrived as desperate relatives sought connection with their loved ones. There are claims she used a mix of cheesecloth, tissue paper, and egg white to form her fraudulent ectoplasm, hiding the mass in her stomach, and that the faces of her spirits were formed of crude papier-mâché heads. Others swore by her gifts, and she maintains a fiercely loyal following in the world of spiritualism.
Duncan is constantly referred to as the “last convicted witch,” but in reality, there was one more: Jane Rebecca Yorke, an east London medium who was found guilty on seven counts against the Witchcraft Act the same year and fined £5 for it. But the Act was eventually repealed in 1951, a decision heavily influenced by the publicity of Duncan's trial.
Duncan’s family have spent years campaigning for her named to be cleared of all witchcraft charges. So far, no pardon has been granted.